Spiritual care coordinator brings interfaith sensitivity
By Kaye Hult
As spiritual care coordinator at Hospice of North Idaho (HONI), Jennifer Hackenbruch meets patients and families where they are spiritually.
She describes hospice as a partner in one's journey through end of life.
"We are here to support people in reaching their goals during this time. We are here to assist them in living until they die," Jennifer said. "It's about the patients and families, and their beliefs, the way they hold their pain and their thoughts about death and dying."
Jennifer never considered working as a hospice chaplain before she came to HONI three and a half years ago. At that time, she had not completed the necessary Clinical Pastoral Education units for the job, which agreed to pursue once she began working.
She brought with her years of exploration of and experience with different faiths as she sought to make sense of her own beliefs, which led to her being ordained as an interfaith minister.
Her spiritual seeking has given her the ability to walk with others from many different faith backgrounds or nonfaith perspectives.
Her time at HONI has made her a better minister, she believes.
"It has made me a better listener and more present with people. I am able to sit with people's pain and grief in ways I never imagined possible. It's a ministry of presence," she said.
Jennifer ministers to people of all faiths, including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Atheists, those holding traditional Native American beliefs and more. She has worked with people with Alzheimer's and dementia, and with people who have forgotten faith and how to pray.
Jennifer grew up in Perkins, a town of about 500 in upper Michigan.
Her father was an evangelical Christian, born again and charismatic. Her mother was a poet and agnostic.
"Because of my father's conservatism, I experienced God as dictatorial," she said. "I became interested in nontraditional spirituality. When I spoke of God, it was as universe and spirit. It took some time to heal my relationship with God and Jesus."
She studied preventative health over many years, graduating from the University of Northern Michigan with a bachelor's degree in health and fitness management in 1999. She went on to receive a master's degree in health education and health promotion from the University of Montana at Missoula in 2001.
Jennifer worked 10 years with the Women's Club in Missoula. She also worked for the Missoula AIDS Council, coordinating a statewide HIV prevention program that included HIV testing and counseling.
Searching for her vocation, she listened to the voice within that she came to identify as coming from God.
Once, the voice called her to travel. In the fall of 2002, she began to tour around the United States, picking up odd jobs here and there. Her travels allowed her to participate in a Shoshone dance, which she found to be "an awesome way to pray." In Florida, she visited a variety of churches, including Unity. Each experience "went into my interfaith bucket," she said.
"I heard the voice again," she said, "telling me to return to school to become an ordained minister. It took me three years, and my mother dying for me to follow that calling."
Jennifer attended and graduated from New Seminary in New York City and was ordained in 2008. During seminary, she traveled again. She learned about a Science of Mind Church similar to Christian Science and about Unity, teaching that God is within and about affirmative prayer.
In 2012, a friend helped send her to India where she spent five months visited ashrams, including a Buddhist ashram overseen by a Zen master who was a Catholic priest. That added to her interfaith practice and beliefs.
"My life has been a journey of exploring different faiths from around the world, including Christianity," she said.
When Jennifer returned from India, she planned to enter the Peace Corps. While filling out the application, she was invited to Sandpoint, where she met her future husband Chris. The Peace Corps was put on hold, while they dated, then married. Then Jennifer learned about the position at HONI and moved to Coeur d'Alene.
"My work is my calling," she said.
"There's been much death in my life: my mother, my older brother and, just recently, my father.
"My experience of death and grief allows me to wrap my mind around the fact that my patients are going to die," she said, "and it's okay. I am only meant to have them for a short time before giving them back. Because of my experiences, I am able to be present and hold space for those who are experiencing death, dying and grief for themselves."
Jennifer and Lisa Selander, HONI's most recently-hired chaplain, cannot meet the needs of all patients with whom they work, she said. "So we access resources from the community, such as priests and other pastors. It is about meeting patients' needs. Most of our patients refuse spiritual care or need someone else to provide it. We are here to make sure they get care they need from us or someone else."
Both have met prejudice against women in spiritual leadership roles.
"One woman called and asked me to come talk with her mother," Jennifer said. "When I knocked on the door, she exclaimed, 'You're a woman!' She refused to let me come in to see her mother.
"We do our best to reach out to the community to help provide our patients and families the spiritual support they need. If that is a priest, pastor or elder from the community, then I work closely with a number of local faith-based organizations to provide it," she continued.
While much of Jennifer's ministry revolves around accompanying patients and family members through the experience of death and dying and making their end-of-life journey a little less hard, she has additional responsibilities.
HONI relies on volunteers in all aspects of caring for its clients, so Jennifer works with spiritual care volunteers.
"I work with our volunteer coordinator and interview spiritual care volunteers to guide them as they care for patients," she said.
Some of her duties are educational. Typically, she helps with training new volunteers. She has met monthly with spiritual care volunteers for training and connection. She has provided an "Exploring Death and Dying series in which she asks folks from different faith traditions to talk about their tradition and their death and dying rituals. These series are offered to staff, volunteers and community members.
In addition, she has worked with HONI's community outreach coordinator, meeting with different pastors in the community to offer education and to work with their members to let them know what hospice is, what HONI offers and when people should come on services.
"Much misinformation is out there about hospice," she said. "Many folks believe one has to be actively dying to receive hospice services. They may think we just offer medications to hurry the death process. None of this is true.
"The sooner people access services, the more help and support they will receive during their process, through their end-of-life journey," she said.
Hospice of North Idaho is community-owned. It offers full services to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay.
"We are here to help people live comfortably after all treatments have been explored, until they die," Jennifer said. "It is common to have people on services for many months. We even love some folks back to health, graduating them from services."
The pandemic curtailed Jennifer's ability to use volunteers and to offer training both in-house and in the community.
Jennifer connects most with God in nature. She knows God is within and she connects to God through prayer and meditation.
"Before each visit, I center myself and ask God to move through me to meet the needs of my patients and family members for their greatest good," she said.
For information, call 208-772-7994, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit hospiceofnorthidaho.org.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, January, 2021